A number of Sanskrit words familiar to all Kṛṣṇa devotees have become incorporated into Standard English. “Karma,” “mantra,” “yoga,” “avatar”—all grace the pages of current dictionaries, and show up in contemporary writings innocent of any italics, the ID statutorily pinned on foreign words. These words belong.
Among them, “avatar” shines most radiantly in the spotlights of popular attention. Just last week The New York Times took note: “Fan Fever is Rising for Debut of ‘Avatar.’” The article thus headlined described the scarcely containable ecstatic anticipations for director James Cameron’s SF film titled “Avatar”—slated for a December release—“which tells the story of a disabled soldier who uses technology to inhabit an alien body on a distant planet.” The film’s advanced, proprietary three-dimensional technology is expected to evince “the power to penetrate the brain in a way that movies never have.” The studio promises, as the Times puts it, a “transcendental 3-D experience.”
Maybe the word “avatar,” having itself descended from Sanskrit into common speech, still comes “trailing clouds of glory.” Does the very word cast its glow on the movie? Even the director fears his work may disappoint. After all, we all know that the transcendence proffered by Hollywood has ever proven elusive, evanescent, and illusory.
The word “avatar” entered English surprisingly long ago. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage in a 1784 article by the Indologist William Jones, who reports on the “ten Avatars or descents” of Viṣṇu. But the OED attests to a fairly swift adaptation of the word to a more general use—this to me marks its true incarnation into the English language—as in 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte is described as an “avatar . . . of the Evil Principle.”
Other citations show the word being used of any individual who seems to exemplify or embody a higher power or force. In the same century “avatar” is used to indicate any ruling power or object of veneration. For example, the annual performances in Bayreuth, Germany, of Richard Wagner’s operas are described in 1883 as “the completest and most characteristic avatars of art our century can shew.” In addition, the OED records a looser usage, still in the nineteenth century, where “avatar” simply means a manifestation, display, or phase of something, as in this 1880 example: “Wit and sense are but different avatars of the same spirit.”
Over time, the word got swept up from the underground by more mainstream concerns. I remember reading in the ’80s press reports of some financial wizard, revered for conjuring up money out of nothing, being called “the avatar of arbitrage.”
Yet the word really came into its own with the advent and ascendance in the ’90s of the MMORPG, otherwise known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. (You can find a list here.) Each human player must assume or create a distinctive persona for entering and acting in the virtual world of the game. That persona is called an avatar. Here is “avatar” as defined by wisegeek.com:
In Hindu mythology, an avatar is a deity that has taken on an earthly form, most often that of a human, in order to bring higher consciousness to the earth that the Hindu gods created. As humans create virtual worlds, it could be said that the computer avatar represents human incarnation into its own creation. Religious affiliations aside, the computer avatar holds a rich and conceptually provocative namesake.
With the airing of the award-wining animated television series (and subsequent full-length TV movie) “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on the Nickelodeon network (2005-08), the word—and even some of its traditional implications—became well established among the six-to-eleven year-old audience. The huge success of these enterprises engendered a projected feature-film trilogy, bearing the “Avatar” title. The next part of the story is conveyed in deadpan style in “the unofficial site for the Avatar 3D movie:”
In January 2007, Paramount Pictures announced a live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender under M. Night Shyamalan and said that the project’s name had been registered to the Motion Picture Association of America for movie title ownership, though a 20th Century Fox representative for James Cameron’s Avatar indicated that the studio owned the movie title. Paramount eventually retitled its film as merely The Last Airbender.
“Eventually!” I’m sure this innocent-seeming word masks a soul-stiring, epic battle, worthy in itself of a gripping and edifying cinematic saga: Fox and Paramont in War of the Avatars!
Such, then, is the astounding apotheosis of the word “avatar.” This extraordinary cultural development did not escape the notice of the alert editors of The New York Times, who went so far as to call a hip guest authority to report the matter. Check out his account in the regular “On Language” column of its Sunday Magazine (August 10, 2008). You will find out even more.
Coming Attraction: “Avatar” Rising, or Where Do We Go From Here?